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Three doctors held a debate Wednesday in a medical malpractice suit before the Tokyo District Court in the first application of the “conference debate formula” intended to gain a fairer outcome and shorten court proceedings.

The three expert witnesses, specialists in the circulatory system and anesthesiology, first presented prepared opinions on an electrocardiogram record and three other items related to the case of a man who died after having surgery to remove a swelling on his neck.

Two of the man’s relatives are demanding compensation of some 34.5 million yen from the hospital where the operation took place.

After questioning by presiding Judge Junji Maeda, the three held a short debate based on the opinions they presented and then faced questions from the lawyers of the plaintiffs and the defendants.

The doctors were given copies of the patient’s medical records two months in advance and asked to prepare opinions on four items of particular concern in the case.

The Tokyo District Court was the first in Japan to adopt the conference debate formula, which is aimed at reducing the burden on expert witnesses, speeding up trial proceedings and ensuring fair presentation of expert testimony.

Malpractice lawsuits in Japan take an average of three years before they are concluded.

Even at the Tokyo District Court, which has four departments in charge of handling such suits, it took an average of over 13 months to resolve 96 cases through either a ruling or a court-mediated settlement between April 2001 and last September. The average time for cases in which a judge eventually handed down a ruling was 16 1/2 months.

The court decided in December to use the new method based on a proposal by doctors to introduce the conference formula they use during regular consultations on medical cases. The proposal was made at a meeting of a discussion panel represented by the court, medical institutions and the bar association.

Doctors are generally reluctant to appear as expert witnesses in trials because they do not want to stand alone at a medical malpractice suit proceeding to give accounts based on their expertise as well as prepare a detailed written opinion.

In principle, the formula will be used once on a predesignated date during the course of the trial for each case, Tokyo District Court officials said.

Yasushige Hagio, acting head of the court’s civil affairs office, said that although it is difficult to arrange the schedules of all the experts to invite them to a court session on a given day, he hoped the consideration of multiple opinions will lead to “more accurate” rulings.

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